Considering how nonplussed I was left by George Clooney’s directorial debut, I’m all the more admiring of how superior his sophomore effort is. Beside his presence in one of the main supporting roles and a general interest in recreating old television programming, there’s very little similarity between the two projects. Whereas Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was all about empty gimmicks and pointless flashiness, “Good Night, And Good Luck.” is dense, direct and digression-free.
The film takes place around 1953-1954, when Joseph McCarthy was chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and conducted a paranoid witch-hunt that was supposedly trying to expose “card-carrying” Communists amongst the government, the media and the military. This campaign of fear made a suspect of everyone. Maybe you subscribed to a socialist newspaper or you attended a meeting twenty years ago and that was it, you were a filthy Red bastard! Heck, it didn’t even have to be anything that you yourself did, you also were considered guilty of the actions of your friends or relatives. Ridiculous.
“Good Night, And Good Luck.” focuses on the role Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn, razor-sharp) played in taking down the Junior Senator from Wisconsin. Whereas most preferred not to attract attention to themselves and silently waited for McCarthy to self-destruct, Murrow and his CBS News colleagues took a stand and stated out loud their disagreement with the politician’s methods. They risked not only their career but their reputation, as those who criticized McCarthy were systematically accused of being Communists themselves, but in the end, righteousness prevailed… for a while.
“We must not confuse dissent and disloyalty.”
Is Clooney’s intent to show how things used to be back then?
“We can not defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
Please! He’s clearly using these past events to address what’s going on right now. More power to him.
“We must not confuse accusation with proof.”
While the film is mostly focused on setting up what Murrow and McCarthy were up to and how they clashed, it does offer a general sense of what went on behind the scenes. It’s interesting to see the beginning stages of television, with hectic live broadcasts where the technology was much more limited than what news teams have access to today. It’s pretty amusing how Murrow smokes cigarettes on the air and how his producer (Clooney) crouches beside his desk to give him his cues, or how Murrow has to do inane showbiz interviews for the network so they will allow him to continue with his controversial investigative journalism. There’s also a subplot about how two of their colleagues (Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr.) must hide their relationship because marriage is not allowed between coworkers.
Beside these few instances, “Good Night, And Good Luck.” is remarkably to the point – it’s practically a documentary. There’s at least half an hour of archival footage (so Joseph McCarthy is basically playing himself) and much of the rest of the picture is devoted to straightforwardly recreating Murrow’s broadcasts. Clooney had no choice but to shoot his film in black & white so everything would match, which is a good thing anyway; B&W cinematography deserves to be used more often.
“Good Night, And Good Luck.” is unspectacular and unemotional, but you can harldy hold that against it. I do feel that those who are calling it one of the year’s best are praising an Important Message more than truly extraordinary filmmaking, but movies should not only be used to, as Murrow says about TV, “distract, delude, amuse and insulate us”. We all need a civics lesson once in a while.